This Amazingly Simple 20-Cent Paper Device Could Save Millions of Lives

man demonstrating paperfuge
Screenshot via YouTube

Many of us take access to modern medicine for granted. Getting sick sucks, but at least when we do, most of us can feasibly walk into a doctor's office stocked with state-of-the-art equipment to figure out what's wrong and hopefully start some sort of treatment. That's a luxury that simply doesn't exist for much of the developing world. Things like basic diagnostic tools can be prohibitively expensive for poorer clinics and way too clunky to easily bring into rural or remote regions.

That's why the medical community is so pumped about a new centrifuge a couple Stanford bioengineers just invented. It's hyper-portable, human-powered, and can detect some of the world's deadliest diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV -- potentially saving countless lives. And incredibly, it costs less than a quarter.

Centrifuges play a pivotal role in medicine. For example, when used to spin small samples of blood around super fast, they can quickly separate the plasma and isolate other elements in it to reveal parasites or pathogens associated with disease and properly diagnose them. However, commercial centrifuges like the ones you might spot in a research lab or diagnostic facility cost thousands of dollars and aren't very portable. 

It's capable of separating plasma from blood in a minute and a half, or 30 seconds faster than a traditional lab version can.

Enter the Paperfuge, a small device made from inexpensive bits of paper, plastic, and string that can perform the same basic function as its much larger and more expensive counterparts. Its inventors actually modeled it after a whirligig, one of those super-simple, old-fashioned children's toys with a disc-shaped object threaded onto a string, which gets wound up and and pulled apart like an accordion, causing the object in the middle to rotate wildly. The object in the middle in this case is a thick piece of paper affixed with plastic capillary tubes containing blood samples.

At max speed, the Paperfuge the can reach 125,000 rotations per minute -- making it nearly 10 times faster than many popular commercial centrifuges on the market. It's capable of separating plasma from blood in a minute and a half, or 30 seconds faster than a traditional lab version can. Perhaps most important, it's small enough to slip into your pocket and doesn't require a lick of electricity. Imagine, instead of schlepping an enormous centrifuge machine and the generator needed to power it into remote villages, a single provider could trek there with a Paperfuge in their pocket, diagnose deadly diseases on the spot, and begin treatment immediately. That's huge.

paperfuge paper

Paperfuges haven't been deployed widely quite yet, but their inventor and his team have already extensively tested them in the field in Madagascar, and they're currently conducting a "validation trial" to prove they can successfully diagnose malaria. And while it'll hopefully be proven effective in helping diagnose a litany of nasty diseases, being able to detect malaria alone would do a great deal to help improve mortality rates in the world's most impoverished and off-the-grid regions.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him to the land of toys that inspire medical breakthroughs @jwmcgauley.